A tiny city on a branch, or is it a dragon, serpent, snake?
All these tiny mushrooms are in fact the reproductive organs of a bigger underlying body, the mycelium. They are what apples are to the tree. In a previous post, I asked the question if we better think of mushrooms as one larger organism, or if each mushroom still contains a sense of self. Today, I look at a range of examples of collective organisms that can remind us of the blurry line between individual and collective, with implications for even human identities.
Mushroom enthusiast Paul Stamets speaks of “collective fungal consciousness”. And this collective notices you as you walk across them:
The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer, or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature… These sensitive mycelial membranes act as a collective fungal consciousness.
At the same time, a mushroom is a spore, a fruiting body. Fungi trouble the distinction between singular and plural. This is exactly what the entertaining writing experiments of Anna Tsing get at: she takes the voice of a spore, and constantly shifts between ‘I’ and ‘we’.
“…I hung precariously in the gills of a mushroom, waiting for the breeze to lift me. What a sense of anticipation! What longing I felt to fly. But before that, I was the mushroom, or, at least, a part of it, feeling the tension and joy of our great expansion as we coiled together, filled out, and at last emerged from underground shelter to the bright world all sharp and vast. [.…] For the moment just consider that the ‘I’ that tunnels, erupts, and flies is neither singular nor plural, so don’t assume you have my number”.
No matter how we look at it, we don’t know what it feels like to be a mushroom. What kind of ‘I’ or ‘we’-ness they experience. It’s all so completely alien to humans. Or, is it?
These foreign intimacies can somehow still feel familiar, remind us of our own lives. They raise bigger questions of identity. Mushrooms can help us to think about what it means to be an individual, human or otherwise, and can inspire us to remember that all bodies participate in the macro and the micro. Individuals are composed of smaller parts; larger structures are only possible by the smaller components. Humans and the microbiome; cities and citizens; bees and beehives; mushrooms, spores, and mycelia. Fungi and plants. They need one another. Hybrid. And, as Anna Tsing’s spore reminds, mycelia grow and change their whole lives, a kind of freedom, as they literally grow into new situations. Us humans might not be that flexible with our bodies, but at least we can let fungi flex our imaginations. Who could we become? We could learn from a mushroom.
The illusion of individuality is also discussed by author David Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen. Just like trees grow better when they exchange nutrients with fungi in underground “conversations”; so do human minds do better when they are “feeding from a pool of shared resources”. Let yourself be inspired and fuelled by others, rather than (impossibly) figuring things out all on your own.
“Our minds are like trees — they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.”
The idea that humans could learn from other collective structures in the natural world has been around for a long, long time. Typically, the beehive is given as an example: like the collective ‘hive mind’, could human societies also work better as a more coherent larger organism…?
I do like these kind of comparisons, but let’s not forget about the individual. Even here we shouldn’t too easily assume that individuals in these societies are mere ‘cells’ that fuel the larger ‘body’. Just like mushrooms, it still makes sense to acknowledge social insects as both individuals and collectives. Social insects like bees and ants have flexible behaviours and rich experiences. For example, bees can learn unusual tasks, like recognising the difference between a Monet and Picasso painting; they recognise faces, make decisions, take lots of naps, and experience the world in multisensory ways. Who knows, they might experience some kind of sensory pleasure as they encounter a good flower. In his book Emergent Ecologies, Eben Kirksey even suggests that some ants might experience empathy for the caterpillars that they protect, as they are aware of the caterpillar’s needs. Instead of superorganisms, he writes, perhaps it’s more appropriate to think of ‘ensembles of selves’ (conscious agents). Almost humorously, this also applies to humans: “the self-as-ensemble includes one’s clothes and house, one’s ancestors and friends, one’s nail clippings and excretions, one’s body, soul, thoughts, and ways of being in the world. Actions oriented to the care of beings and things enlist them in the ensemble”
Let’s end with something visual. Things like consciousness, minds, thoughts, decisions, imaginations, they’re all pretty hard to grasp. Could we visualise something about them to make things slightly more tangible? Are they also composed of some kind of collective structure? Well, kinda. At least when you look at ant brains. Ants keep their memories in “mushroom bodies”, structures inside their brain that are shaped like fungal caps, according to Russian biologist Zhanna Reznikova. Mushroom-brained ants. I found this example of an ant brain structure:
Even though creatures are all so overwhelmingly strange and different, looking at forms and shapes can bring some sweet relief, some kind of connection, pattern, a reminder of shared forms. And human consciousness? Yes, our brains are shaped like walnuts, but I like to think of our thoughts and imaginations as ensembles of abstract shapes and colours. Some are isolated, others will be connected by bridges as our thoughts make unexpected connections:
Surely, big imaginations are born from the same structures as tiny imaginations.
Anna Tsing (2014). Strathern beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture & Society. 31 (2/3), 221-241
Paul Stamets (2005). Mycelium Running. How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.
Eben Kirksey (2015). Emergent Ecologies.